Synopses & Reviews
From the author of While I Was Gone
, a stunning new novel that showcases Sue Miller's singular gift for exposing the nerves that lie hidden in marriages and families, and the hopes and regrets that lie buried in the hearts of women.
Maine, 1919. Georgia Rice, who has cared for her father and two siblings since her mother's death, is diagnosed, at nineteen, with tuberculosis and sent away to a sanitarium. Freed from the burdens of caretaking, she discovers a nearly lost world of youth and possibility, and meets the doomed young man who will become her lover.
Vermont, the present. On the heels of a divorce, Catherine Hubbard, Georgia's granddaughter, takes up residence in Georgia's old house. Sorting through her own affairs, Cath stumbles upon the true story of Georgia's life and marriage, and of the misunderstanding upon which she built a lasting love.
With the tales of these two women one a country doctor's wife with a haunting past, the other a twice-divorced San Francisco schoolteacher casting about at midlife for answers to her future Miller offers us a novel of astonishing richness and emotional depth. Linked by bitter disappointments, compromise, and powerful grace, the lives of Georgia and Cath begin to seem remarkably similar, despite their distinctly different times: two young girls, generations apart, motherless at nearly the same age, thrust into early adulthood, struggling with confusing bonds of attachment and guilt; both of them in marriages that are not what they seem, forced to make choices that call into question the very nature of intimacy, faithfulness, betrayal, and love. Marvelously written, expertly told, The World Below captures the shadowy half-truths of the visible world, and the beauty and sorrow submerged beneath the surfaces of our lives the lost world of the past, our lost hopes for the future. A tour de force from one of our most beloved storytellers.
"Miller has created a marriage that survives despite its fault lines, a marriage that seems both modern and old-fashioned: recognizably fraught, yet enduring, the sort of marriage readers hunger to read about." Publishers Weekly
"A beautifully crafted and supremely satisfying work of fiction." Library Journal
About the Author
Sue Miller was born in Chicago in 1943, the second of four children in an academic and ecclesiastical family. She grew up reading, writing, and dancing to 50's rhythm and blues in Hyde Park, and went to college at Harvard. She was married at twenty, shortly after she graduated, and held a series of odd jobs until her son Ben was born in 1968. She separated from her first husband in 1971, and for thirteen years was a single parent in Cambridge, Massachusetts, working in day care, taking in roomers, studying the piano, and writing with increasing focus.
Sue Miller's first story was published in 1981. Since then, she has taught in various writing programs in the Boston area. In 1983-84 Sue Miller had a Bunting Fellowship at Radcliffe, which led her to the publication of her first novel, The Good Mother. She finished the novel in 1985, it was published 1986, and was quickly followed by a collection of short stories. In the 90's she published Family Pictures, For Love, The Distinguished Guest, and While I Was Gone. She is currently writing a memoir about her father's death from Alzheimer's disease.
Sue Miller was married in 1985 to the writer Douglas Bauer. They are now divorced. After living in Boston for 12 years, Sue Miller returned this spring to Cambridge, which she refers to as the land of many bookstores.
Reading Group Guide
1. Soon after Catherine arrives in Vermont, a real estate agent approaches her about showing the house to prospective buyers. The realtor compliments her on the house and adds that she is also enamored of the house's "story"-"in the family for generations, both your parents living here into their old age, and so forth." Catherine recoils. "The truth was I didn't want to think of any of us that way-my grandparents, my mother, me. Or to have our life here used as a selling point-all that pain and sorrow and joy-to make the house itself more appealing. We weren't the house's story, none of us." Catherine is objecting, in part, to the fact that the story is more complicated than the realtor could possibly know-more complicated than any of them could possibly know, in fact. What does she mean? How is this notion advanced throughout the novel?
2. Miller writes that as Dr. Holbrooke examined nineteen-year-old Georgia he was "already beginning to think in terms of rescue." Yet in the same chapter he reflects on the arbitrariness of fate-of death in particular-and of the bewildering weight of his power in relation to both. How do you think Dr. Holbrooke squares his discomfort with his decision to have Georgia sent to the san? How do you think the author views his actions?
3. Catherine speaks of rescue, too in the scene in which she first meets Joe. "What shall I say of Joe? That I felt rescued by him from something I hadn't been conscious of needing rescue from? That I trusted him? Both were true. I never considered that I might be rescuing him." How does this differ from Dr. Holbrook's rescue of Georgia? To what extent are all relationships, especially romantic ones, a form of rescue?
4. As young women, both Cath and Georgia felt a deep sense of shame; both of them, early on , came to believe that they were failures. Why? Discuss the parallels in their lives.
5. Shortly after receiving the news that her father is to be remarried, Georgia cuts her hair. Is this transformation an act of empowerment or of self-punishment? "She unpinned her hair and let it down-your crowning glory her mother had called it-and watched as the long bolts of it slipped and whispered to the floor? What is Georgia rejecting? What is she embracing?
6. In chapter eight, Catherine invites Samuel Eliasson back to her house, and they have a conversation about the past. Eliasson, a historian, says that he views himself as an anthropologist, of sorts; he compares the past to "another culture, another country." What does he mean? And how is this notion of the past reflected in the novel as a whole?
7. In this same conversation, Samuel describes his wife's religious devotion as "the central invisible fact of her life." He continues, "You could write her life's story without including it if you didn't know specifically about it, it was simply underneath everything. " How does this idea of a "central invisible fact" come into play elsewhere in the novel? What is the central invisible fact of Georgia's life? Of Dr. Holbrooke's? Of Catherine's? What is the central invisible fact of your own?
8. The novel takes its name from the image of a town submerged beneath the surface of a lake. Catherine glimpses this world one day while fishing on the lake with her grandfather: "I looked down again. It came and went under the moving water, the sense of what was there. There were long moments when I couldn't quite get it, when it seemed I must have imagined it. But then there it was again, sad and mysterious. Grand, somehow. Grand, because it was gone forever but still visible, still imaginable, below us." Discuss this image in relation to the novel's themes. How has the author woven it into the novel's narrative and the narrative of its individual characters? What is the "World Below"?
9. Catherine expresses a desire to begin life anew at various points throughout the novel-when she arrives with her young children on her grandparents' doorstep, after seperating from her first husband; when she arrives in Vermont to make a decision about whether to sell the house or stay on; when, as a teengager, she is offered the chance to live with Rue in Paris for a summer. Each of these moments offers her, or seems to offer her, the possibility of inventing a new self. Is this kind of self-invention possible? Discuss the author's views on identity.
10. Discuss the question above in relation to Georgia's life. Look, in particular, at Georgia's thoughts after leaving the san, and at her first conversation with Dr. Holbrooke at her father's wedding. To what extent is it possible for other people to act as a bridge between our past and future selves?
11. In chapter eleven, Georgia and Dr. Holbrooke have a heated argument in which it unfolds that their marriage has been built on a misunderstanding. Can true love ever emerge out of a falsehood, even an accidental one? How does the author shape our perception of their marriage through the course of the book?
12. During Georgia's argument with Dr. Holbrooke it is also revealed that Georgia did not have TB at the time she was sent to the san, and that Dr. Holbrooke misled her about the condition of her lungs. Dr. Holbrooke claims that he was justified in lying to her because her time at the san was beneficial-she rested, she gained strength, she was relieved of the daily burdens of caring for her family. "But it changed my life!" Georgia cries in response. What is your view of Dr. Holbrooke's decision to have her sent away? Was this an act of mercy, or a misuse of power, or both? Do we have the right to change one another's lives?
The questions, discussion topics, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading of Sue Miller's The World Below, a moving, often surprising exploration of the things people keep hidden from those closest to them. At its heart are two women: Catherine, a twice-divorced mother of three grown children who faces new possibilities and choices as she enters her fifties, and Georgia, Catherine's grandmother, the devoted wife of a country doctor who raised Catherine and her brother after the suicide of their mentally ill mother.